One in five of us suffers from stress, so what’s wrong with our lives and what can we do about it?
The struggle of shutting off
It's getting dark outside. Everything around me is quietening down – but in my head it’s noisier than ever. One thought follows another: have I paid that bill? Is there anything I’ve forgotten for tomorrow? Does my colleague know about the changed schedule? Is everything regarding my son organised? The clock says it’s time for bed, but my mind is racing. I wish the day had more hours in it. But why is life always so stressful? And does it really have to be this way? The next day I decide to look for some answers.
One of the leading experts on the topic of stress is Professor Cary Cooper, a psychologist from Manchester University in the UK. During an interview, he assures me that I’m not alone: “Twenty-five per cent of people feel stressed,” he says. “Whether you’re in the UK, Germany or Austria, the picture is the same. And in countries such as China, India or Brazil, it’s even worse as a result of their economic development.”
High expectations trigger stress
So what exactly makes us feel so stressed? Are we driven by perfectionism: the feeling that we are not good enough if we don’t do everything to an impossibly high standard all the time? Or is it simply due to poor time management?
“If I believe that something won’t happen in the future the way I want it to, then this results in stress,” explains Bernhard Riener, economic psychologist and business consultant in Haag, Austria. “It’s our own innermost expectations of how things should be that cause stress. We often make excessively high demands of ourselves as people, and also of others.”
As a result, we become burdened by stress. But then there’s the flip side of the coin: stress can initially be motivating, which is a positive thing. “Sometimes it helps us to get moving and to do things. It’s only when we can no longer switch off, and take on more and more, that stress becomes negative,” explains Zurich-based yoga teacher Poonam Stecher Sharma, who acted as yoga adviser for 2010 Hollywood blockbuster ‘Eat, Pray, Love’.
I think about the past few months and realise that I’ve been constantly on the go, with hardly any time out. No wonder I can no longer switch off. Trying to do everything has sent me into a spiral of stress. And now I want out.
Taking back control
“One of the reasons for stress is the fast pace of modern life that is often outside our control,” says Professor Cooper. Consciously switching off can help a person to deal with this, and having a balance of social and family life is also something that can support us.
“It's essential to stop being constantly accessible,” says Professor Cooper. “Don’t take work home with you, and don’t read emails when you’re not at work. In fact, it's best to completely block them when you’re on holiday, for instance, to avoid the temptation of opening them.”
For Cooper, work is a big factor as far as stress is concerned. Work stress, the expectations of colleagues and bosses, as well as our own personal expectations and ambitions, are things that can create enormous pressure. “To reduce stress in the workplace, it’s important that managers are trained to avoid overloading employees and to spot signs that they are feeling under pressure. More than anything else, they need the skills to recognise what’s happening on a social level in the team, rather than simply setting deadlines and overloading their staff,” says Cooper. “At the same time, we must learn to take responsibility for ourselves and say no, unless something is really important.”
There are also many ways to successfully deal with stress on a physical level: “Acupuncture, massages or yoga can help to reduce stress,” says Stecher Sharma. Plus, there are practical tools that help us to bring structure and time management into our day; we can use these to learn how to divide and perform our activities, according to their importance. Proper time management alleviates pressure and helps a person to deal with stress (see ‘7 steps to good time management’, below).
I remember my to-do list, and my earnest wish for the day to have more hours in it. After all, prioritising and eliminating things is a wish that no one is going to grant for me. And I decide that I will start straight away – because the day has only 24 hours in it!
7 steps to good time management
Stress is often associated with the sense of having too little time, but bad time management can be partly to blame, according to many experts. If you’re struggling, try these tips:
- Accept that you can't do everything –decide what things are most important to you and focus on them.
- Prioritise your activities in accordance with the Eisenhower principle: do the tasks that are both important and urgent yourself, set aside time for important ones and a few unforeseen things that may occur, delegate where possible, and strike off what is neither important nor urgent.
- Slow down as the pressure increases. This may sound counter-intuitive but the more you have to do, the greater the tendency to speed up and the more likely it is that you’ll make mistakes, increasing your stress levels. You’re also more likely to become exhausted and burnt out.
- Consciously establish breaks so you can rest and restore your energy.
- Keep work for the workplace and don’t let it creep into your weekends, holidays and general private life.
- Cut yourself some slack – consider adjusting your expectations of yourself. Are you the real cause of your own stress by setting the bar unrealistically high?
- Don't be afraid to say no to some things. Only you know whether you can comfortably accommodate an extra task